In December of 2013, Laura and I traveled to New Zealand in style: our seat turned into a bed. This was a follow up to an epic OneWorld Explorer trip we did back in 2012, that took us from Los Angeles to Honolulu to Tokyo to Hong Kong to Bali to Bangkok (where we then took trains through Thailand, Malaysia, and ended in Singapore) before flying back to LAX. And all of it was done flying in business class, for less than $300…You still with me?
So how do you do this? Two ways: be filthy rich, OR take a serious look at earning miles. There are a ton of ways to earn miles. There is the classic butt-in-seat miles approach (flying), credit card bonuses (jackpot), and even getting miles for doing nothing more than eating at your favorite pizza place (every mile counts). We’ll hit all of these in posts over the next few weeks.
But to get anywhere, you’ve got to have a frequent flyer account. Like. Right. Now. So this post is for the beginners of beginners. Not sure where to start? We’ll do our best to avoid the jargon and complexities and will cut right to the point.
Do This Now
If you live in the United States, open the following frequent flyer accounts: American AAdvantage, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, United Mileage Plus, and Southwest Rapid Rewards. If you’re a hipster or just like cool mood lighting, bonus points for Virgin America Elevate. If you like being slapped in the face- Delta SkyMiles is waiting for you. If you live outside the US, obviously looking at a carrier in your home country or region is smart. One of the U.S. airline programs may still be right for you, but if you have questions, throw them in the comment section.
The nuts and bolts of this post is this: United and American are both part of different alliances of airlines. Alaska, while not part of an alliance, has 12 partners you can earn miles with. This means almost anywhere in the world you fly, you have options to earn points on one of those three airlines.
For example, if you join American Airlines AAdvantage program, you earn miles not just on American Airlines, but also have the opportunity when flying British Airways, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, LAN, etc… The same is true for any of those airlines frequent flyers when they are on American. American is part of OneWorld, and United is part of Star Alliance. Since we didn’t suggest Delta, you technically don’t have a member of the third and final large alliance- SkyTeam.
Don’t Overlook the Small Ones
If you’re not really traveling internationally (or beyond limited parts of the Caribbean and parts of Latin America at least) and instead are almost fully on domestic flights and looking for domestic rewards, Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America are all worth another look. JetBlue and Virgin are popular for having AVOD (TVs in each seat) and Southwest continues to win hearts as the LUV airline, known for good customer service and for several popular domestic routes with multiple departures. Our two cents: Southwest is a must-have frequent flyer account, and I’d take a good look at the JetBlue route map and Virgin America route map and determine if one of these is right for you. They both have a much more limited map so even for us living in LA, they still don’t make a lot of sense. One important note is that JetBlue, Virgin America, Southwest and soon Delta all have (or soon will have) what are called revenue-based frequent flyer programs. This means you get miles for the money you spend, not the miles you fly. If you’re a bargain hunter, that makes these airlines less advantageous in terms of your potential to both earn and redeem miles.
What About Delta?
Delta was in the original write up of this post and then on February 26, 2014, they wrote themselves out of it with massive changes to their frequent flyer program. Like mentioned above, they switched to a revenue model that rewards the passengers who spend the most. With Alaska, you can earn miles whenever you fly Delta (as well as American) and several international partners. As such, unless you plan to fly elite customer levels with Delta, we don’t see much reason to show them any love, as they have consistently made sure to not show any love to their frequent flyers. Note: Since writing this, United followed in the footsteps of Delta making a revenue based earning model. That said, United generally has better reward redemption opportunities and is still worth having an open account with.
Which to use most
You’ve got a frequent flyer account (or three to five). Figure out which airline you want to make your primary airline. What does this mean? That when all things are equal (or almost equal), who will be the carrier you choose? This is an important question for a couple reasons: First, one flight alone won’t get you to earning free flights! But, perhaps equally important, if you fly at least 25,000 miles a year on an airline and/or their partners, you can earn elite status. Keep in mind United also has a minimum spend requirement. Low-level status, doesn’t do too much but it still has its perks. Often, it includes things like priority boarding and security screening, earning bonus miles for every flight, and a dedicated customer service number that has better (read: faster) customer service responses than the standard number.
A final note in this section: Sometimes it’s cheaper to book the more expensive ticket. Huh? If you’re able to gain airline status, like I said, you earn perks as well as bonus miles. So sometimes, that fare that is $20 cheaper on AirTran (and please don’t fly AirTran ever) isn’t really $20 cheaper because the value of the bonus miles you would earn or whatever value you place one earning elite status surpasses the modest discount. Loyalty is the name of the game, and sometimes you have to throw a few extra dollars down to receive the benefits of loyalty.
Now, how do you choose your preferred frequent flyer program? Below is a list of a few ideas.
Hubs and Networks
Alaska’s top hubs are: Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Anchorage. So Alaska is a no brainer if you live in the Pacific Northwest but keep in mind that you can fly Delta or American Airlines (along with a host of international carries like KLM) while earning Alaska airlines. So it’s also worth considering where Delta’s top hubs are: Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City. Apart from the top four hubs, it also has hubs everywhere from Cincinnati to New York (JFK and LaGuardia, as well as international hubs in Paris, Amsterdam, and Tokyo.
American’s top hubs are: Dallas, New York (JFK), Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago. But keep in mind American is merging with US Airways, which has hubs in Charlotte, Philadelphia, and Phoenix; American will maintain these US Airways hubs for at least five years.
United’s top hubs are: Chicago, Houston, New York (Newark), Denver, San Francisco, Washington Dulles, Los Angeles, and Cleveland.
Southwest is different. They don’t do the hub and spoke approach of most airlines (planes are routed to major hubs and then you connect to another plane to get to your final destination). No, Southwest has a greater diversity of point-to-point flights then competitors. So if you don’t live in a hub city for one of the top three, Southwest may be even better for you!
So what are the focus cities for Southwest? Baltimore, Chicago (Midway), Dallas Love Field (now you know why they’re called the LUV airline- it’s where they started), Denver, Atlanta, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Nashville, Oakland, Orlando, Phoenix, San Diego, and Houston. Note they often fly to smaller airports, such as Midway in Chicago or Love Field in Dallas.
But a Caution on Southwest
While Southwest is great, they’re not my preferred airline, and the reason is simple: I value redeeming my miles for international trips above all else and with Southwest, the only options for international travel will come on July 1, 2014 and be limited to Mexico and the Caribbean. For that reason, we highly suggest focusing on one of the big three if international redemptions are important to you, and, as you’ll come to find in your research, it’s when you get enough miles to redeem for business or first class on international flights (think filet mignon, awesome wine, and the seat that reclines to a bed) that you really get the best value of your miles.
So who is our preferred frequent flyer program?
We’re both with American Airlines AAdvantage Program. Alaska would be next in line. Then United. Why American for us? Partly because the large amount of flights out of LA. It’s partly that’s who we started out with when we were young and we just never stopped. But it’s mainly because the customer service hasn’t been too bad, the miles are easy to redeem (unlike Delta), and the destinations we can get to on our AA miles, whether with American or one of their partners, provide us great satisfaction. From Asia to Israel, to Europe and onto Hawaii and Africa, we have quite literally seen the world redeeming and earning American Airlines miles with them and their partner airlines.
But aren’t there exceptions to the rule?
Of course. But that would be overwhelming for newbies and this post is for our friends who are rookies. But if you really want to dive in, we’ll provide one preview of an example we’ll provide in a future blog post. If your main goal is to redeem miles for short haul flights, look at joining British Airways Executive Club. Here’s why: British Airways redemption chart differs from most in that it’s distance based.
So let’s say you’re in LA and want to redeem miles and enjoy some great wine up in Sonoma and Napa. There’s a small airport in Sonoma County that Alaska Airlines, one of British Airways partners, flies into. This airport is great because it’s so close, you avoid having to deal with getting out of SFO, Oakland, or San Jose but of course that also makes most flights more expensive. Thus, you want to use miles. If you wanted to fly from LAX to Sonoma County Airport with American miles, you could do it on an Alaska Airlines flight but it would cost 25,000 miles. But with British Airways Avios, the number of miles needed is incredibly low: 9,000! If you want to price out other distance awards on British Airways, Wandering Aramean has created a calculator to figure out how many miles it costs to get from point A to B with British Airways.
And, as much as we and other travel bloggers bag on Delta, they may end up being right for you. A lot of people would suggest you have accounts with American, United, and Delta (and probably in that order). If you really think Delta makes sense for you, do more research!
The complexities aren’t for everybody. And our goal is that if you do nothing else as a result from this post, that you start earning miles. A friend of mine used to fly to Asia and India about every 2-3 months, and he never collected miles on his flights. We’re talking about thousands of dollars, and not to mention free food and drinks in lounges from elite status he could have earned, thrown away because he was too overwhelmed to even know where to start!
So for now, sign up for American, Alaska, United, and Southwest’s respective frequent flyer programs. Play around with their websites a bit. Glance at their partner pages to see who you can earn miles with. Map out your flying patterns, and if there is a chance you might fly at least 25,000 miles this year- consider getting strategic and trying to earn all those miles with one airline to get elite status (read: occasional upgrades, free checked bag, and bonus miles)! If nothing else, the journey to free flights starts one mile at a time. So what are you waiting for?
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